by Robert Harris (June 2014)
During Pope Francis’ May 25th/26th visit to Israel, and the territory administered by the Palestinian Authority (PA), he called for a “state of Palestine” to be fully established.
A diplomatic shift
In contrast to his predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John-Paul II, the current pontiff displayed a notable degree of support for the Arab-Palestinian cause, with a number of significant gestures.
Last month, Pope Francis broke with tradition by announcing the decision to hold the principle prayer service of the visit in the PA administered town of Bethlehem, rather than that of Jerusalem, and, notably, in the presence of President Mahmoud Abbas. Likewise, travelling to Bethlehem from Jordan was deemed a diplomatic coup for the PA.
Pope Francis addressed Mahmoud Abbas, in his speech at the Palestinian Authority’s ‘presidential palace’ in Bethlehem:
Mr President, you are known as a man of peace and a peacemaker. Our recent meeting in the Vatican and my presence today in Palestine attest to the good relations existing between the Holy See and the State of Palestine. I trust that these relations can further develop for the good of all.
Pope Francis’ description of Abbas as a “man of peace” was notable, in view of the Palestinian Authority’s problematic role in the peace-process, in which they appear to have planned a series of unilateral moves, with the intention of undermining the negotiation frameworks, and having reconciled with Hamas, an entity still dedicated to Israel’s annihilation by means of terrorism.
If the pontiff’s speech can be interpreted in diplomatic terms, his use of conciliatory language toward the Palestinian Authority, contrasts with a degree of criticism aimed at Israel. He may lay blame at the door of Israel for the failure of the recent US-sponsored peace process. He repeated his support for “the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland,” when he met Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, during the subsequent Israeli leg of his journey.
Pope Francis did not direct demands of a similar nature at Mahmoud Abbas. For example, an equivalent request for Arab-Palestinians to afford recognition of Israel as a principally Jewish state, as per the established approach of “two states for two peoples,” was not forthcoming.
Whilst Pope Francis acknowledged the need for Israel to live in security, he described this desirable condition as necessarily being “within internationally recognised borders,” a diplomatic code for a call on Israel to retreat to its 1949-67 Armistice Lines, known as the “Auschwitz Borders,” a term coined by Abba Eban, due to their near-indefensibly.
Pope Francis went further by inviting both Abbas and Shimon Peres to the Vatican for a meeting. Such a move was surprising, since Peres’ role as president is largely ceremonial, having little to do with the peace process. It would have been more meaningful to invite Netanyahu but Abbas would have likely refused, given his notable reluctance to talk peace. In view of Peres’ softer stance on Palestinianism, extending an invite to this politician could possibly serve as a useful propaganda initiative for Abbas.
In what was a carefully choreographed visit, an invite excluding Netanyahu may also be construed as a sharp diplomatic snub to both the politician himself and the government that he leads.
Pope Francis’ diplomatic moves lend substantive credence to a report from December 2013, in which it was stated that Abbas requested the Pope show diplomatic favour to the Arab-Palestinian cause during his visit. Clearly the Vatican’s promise of a religious politically non-partisan visit was never a realistic prospect.
A soft stance on terrorism
Pope Francis’ reputedly unscheduled visit to the walled area of the barrier fence in Bethlehem, which divides much of Judea and Samaria (AKA the ‘West Bank’) from the rest of Israel, drew substantive international attention. To quote the Bloomberg news agency:
The pontiff leaned his head against a section of the barrier, which had “Free Palestine” and “Apartheid Wall” spray-painted on it and was located near an Israeli military watchtower.
In a carefully planned visit, this prayer at such a politically photogenic location was a surprisingly strong signal of the Vatican’s support for the Arab-Palestinian cause. The Security Barrier is a widely used anti-Israel propaganda motif, one that is commonly directed at Christian audiences.
Arutz Sheva reported:
The pope also paused for several moments in front of a graffiti on the security wall in Bethlehem, bowing his head in prayer in front of a message proclaiming, “Pope we need to see someone to speak about justice. Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine.”
Although one representative claimed the Pope’s prayer at the wall was an unplanned “personal decision,” the move was very much in keeping with the intentionally strong pro-Palestinian tone of the visit. The charged political significance of the act was likely known to both the Pope and the Vatican.
Despite the Pope’s subsequent criticism of the Holocaust, during his visit to the Yad Vashem Museum, his willingness to pray beside a propagandistically lucrative message, equivocating Bethlehem with the Warsaw Ghetto, is deeply troubling.
Israel’s security barrier was largely responsible for stopping the Second Intifada, in which terrorists used areas, such as Bethlehem, to cross into Israel. The Intifada led to the death of 1,148 Israelis the great majority of which were Jewish civilians, along with many thousands of other less fatal casualties, including 6,000 wounded in nearby Jerusalem. The rate of killing decreased dramatically after the erection of the security barrier – a fact even terrorists themselves conceded.
Thus, such a gesture was particularly insensitive, coming just a day after two Israeli civilians were gunned down in an anti-Semitic terrorist incident in Belgium.
In retrospect, the portents leading to the Pope’s gesture were significant. Ahead of the Papal visit, Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, argued that:
On the one hand, Israel’s right to exist in peace and security within internationally recognized boundaries. And the Palestinian people’s right to have a homeland, sovereign and independent, the right to move around freely, the right to live in dignity.
The strength of this stance, with its emphasis on Arab-Palestinian rights, is notable. Parolin criticised Israel even within his assertion of the Jewish State’s right to a secure existence. It would seem Israel only has a right to a peaceful existence within some normative concept of “internationally recognized boundaries.” This can be construed as an indirect legitimisation of terrorism, both past and present.
Thus, the Vatican’s position was not one of balance, as presented, but rather a hierarchy of rights. One right (Palestinian statehood) is more important than that of the opposing need (safety of Jewish civilians). Ahead of the visit, the Vatican’s programme described Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the “State of Palestine,” thereby demonstrating what little regard the Vatican has toward the negotiation of statehood in exchange for an authentic peace.
During his visit, the Pope condemned vandalism reputedly caused by Jewish settlers, while making no reference to the more lethal violence visited upon these people. A close friend of the Pontiff asserted that he wished to cast himself as the “Che Guevera of the Palestinians,” and would support their “struggle” during his visit. Che Guevera was a noted terrorist, who sought a nuclear confrontation at the Bay of Pigs.
Opportunities for incitement
Notably, the papal visit was used to illicit very familiar hate motifs. According to Arutz Sheva, Abbas accused Israel of:
… systematically acting to change [Jerusalem’s] identity and character, and strangling the Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, with the aim of pushing them out.
Such a charge constitutes incitement, its theme associated with common allegations that Israel is trying to take over the Temple Mount, an accusation which is often met with lethal violence.
The Pope was also presented with reproductions of great European works of art, largely with Christian themes, albeit crassly modified for the purposes of Arab-Palestinian propaganda. Christian themed incitement featured, with Jesus yet again being presented as an Arab-Palestinian Shahid or martyr, with its overt terrorist connotations. One of the works at the exhibit, based upon Raphael’s The Deposition (1507), evoked the old Christian belief that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, a notion that was used historically to justify genocidal anti-Semitic violence. However, the dead Jesus being carried to his tomb was substituted with that of the corpse of an Arab-Palestinian.
Likewise, Abbas asserted, in the Pontiff’s presence, that the murder of Israeli citizens by Arab-Palestinians should not be deemed a punishable crime, a remarkable statement that he has made on previous occasions.
In such a context, the Pope’s vocal support for Abbas at the very same platform, and his dramatic, and potentially historic, gesture at the security barrier, could well develop into a deep diplomatic wedge between Israel and the Vatican, after the improvements brought about with Pope John-Paul II’s historic visit in 2000. The following day, an unscheduled visit at a memorial for Israeli civilians murdered by terrorists, was seen as a placatory gesture aimed at the Israeli government.
However, the final day of the Pontiff’s visit was also tainted by his meeting with Grand Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, on the Temple Mount. Two years ago, the Mufti preached that Muslims are destined to kill Jews. He also said that the souls of suicide bombers “tell us to follow in their path.”
President Mahmoud Abbas took the opportunity to use the visit to criticise Israel for the plight of Arab-Palestinian Christians, blaming the Jewish State for their emigration from the area in more recent times.
As would be expected, Abbas made no mention of religious persecution being a substantive cause for the exodus of Christians from Bethlehem, and other areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. Conditions for Christians worsened soon after the PA gained control of the region, under the 1995 Oslo II Accords. In 1997 the PLO evicted monks and nuns from a noted monastery in Hebron, intimidated Christian converts, and opened fire on a group in the Christian town of Beit Sahur. Most recently, on the 6th of May 2014, a Muslim mob stoned Christians at a church in Bethlehem, during their annual celebration of the feast of St. George, their patron saint.
Perhaps the violent occupation and desecration of Bethlehem’s famous Church of the Nativity, by over a hundred PLO/PA terrorists during the Second Intifada, represents the most infamous incident to date, for these aggressors used the site to defame Israel internationally. Up to sixty monks, nuns and priests were held hostage by the PLO but Yasser Arafat, the then leader of the PA and PLO, successfully presented the Jewish State as an aggressor against the Christian community, when the IDF made efforts to extract the terrorists from the site. It was an example of the PLO’s use of Christian areas to aggress against Israeli civilians, full in the knowledge that IDF military operations would have to be conducted in these areas to suppress insurgent activity.
The security barrier put an end to the use of Bethlehem as a base for terrorist strikes. Beit Jalla, a neighbouring Christian enclave, was also used for sniper attacks upon civilian residents of the Jewish neighbourhood of Gilo. Yet Pope Francis attacked the very presence of a structure that played a vital role in creating a safer environment for Christians. Thus, his move was a betrayal of Christian interests.
Pope Francis, not only remained silent about the persecution of Christians, he inverted reality by stating their contribution was “significant and valued” despite being a religious minority in the region. The statement may be deemed troublingly uninformed, in view of substantive Christian oppression in the Islamic Middle East today.
Pope Francis’ Bethlehem wall of prayer conduct sharply counteracts the controversial widely discussed views of Christy Anastas, a Christian native of Bethlehem, who spoke out strongly in favour of Israel’s security barrier. Her expressed opinions led to an intensive campaign of intimidation and boycott against her family, who are still living in the area. The irony of this intimidation is stark, in view of the fact that her parents have long campaigned against Israel at international forums.
The treatment of the Anastas family is representative of the deteriorating conditions for Christians in the region, where there is considerable pressure for them to toe-the-line politically, against Zionism. Such discriminatory pressure is often exerted by officials within the Palestinian Authority itself.
If the plight of the Christians of the region has a substantive moral lesson, it would likely be that they cannot appease their present-day Islamist neighbours sufficiently. Attacking Israel, whilst staying silent on their own ill-treatment, is ultimately not enough to obtain peaceable co-existence in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, Pope Francis’ actions will likely serve to undermine the importance of independent voices, like Anastas and other Arab-Palestinian Christians. It stands as a double-wrong to not only maintain silence on an issue that needs to be addressed desperately, but to actively assist those who are involved in perpetuating an almost universally accepted narrative that fabricates the major cause of the deteriorating conditions of the people he represents, in spirit if not always in actuality due to the great diversity of Christian denominations. Moreover, the very actors he assists are also substantively responsible for directly causing the very conditions of intolerance that so harms those the Pontiff purports to represent. These actions serve the propagandistic efforts of those that not only care little for the welfare of this struggling community, they benefit greatly from a news black-out on its oppression.
Robert Harris contributes articles to several websites on contentious political issues (not to be confused with the popular English novelist (1957-) of the same name). He also blogs at eirael.blogspot.com and lives in Ireland.
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